In the western part of Kyoto along the Katsura river lies a heavily templed area known as Arashiyama. Most famous of all the beautiful century old wooden structures in Arashiyama is the Tenryu-ji Temple complex. Tenryu-ji Temple (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), head temple of the Tenryu-ji Rinzai Zen sect, was built in 1339 by Takauji Ashikaga (1305-1358), the first Ashikaga shogun. At its peak, Tenryu-ji Temple ranked as the largest Zen monastery in western Japan, with 120 sub-temples. The temple’s exquisite pond garden dates back to the Heian period and the garden itself is the work of Muso Soseki (1275-1351), one of the most respected Zen monks of the 14th century. Just outside the northern gate of the temple is Arashiyama’s famous bamboo forest path–Chikurin no Komichi.
The Bamboo Groves of Arashiyama
Depending on the weather and time of day the light and shadow along this serene 200-meter path in concert with the wind flowing through the canopy will transport you to a meditative world of centuries past–a world without phones, cars and trains where walking through the grove was a regular zen meditative practice.
Easy enough to find after contemplating Soseki’s garden mirroring the surrounding mountainous landscape, the bamboo grove offers another treasure: the former estate of Denjiro Okochi (1898-1962), Japan’s most famous silent film star. Known as Ōkōchi Sansō, the spiral garden and teahouse complex houses a wondrous history worth exploring (entry includes a fine ceramic bowl of whipped green tea). The views from the seat of Ōkōchi Sansō, Mt. Ogura, has been talked about in classical poetry since Heian times.
Assuming you find, enter and tea party it up at Ōkōchi Sansō (participating in the tea ceremony is integral to the zen experience), following the bamboo forest path back to the diminutive Nonomiya Shrine (you passed it on the way up) should prove another small feat. Listen to the wind rustling through the bamboo leaves and picture Lady Murasaki’s 11th century classic Tale of Genji. The petite size of Nonomiya Shrine–where much like in the novel, generations of imperial princesses once spent a year undergoing purification rites before moving on to the sacred heart of Japanese Shintoism, Ise Grand Shrine–makes one wonder where they all were purified.
Having completed the western leg of your journey into the zen heart of Kyoto, it’s perfectly acceptable to stop by one of the many riverside restaurants and get meditative with a few draught beer.